The Complex

This U.S. Colonel Was Sure He Was About To Get Involved in Syria's War

When a U.S. Marine Corps task force sent nearly all of its 2,400 personnel ashore in Jordan in June, Marine officials said it had nothing to do with the horrific civil war in neighboring Syria. Turns out, that's half right: While the Marines were in Jordan for long-planned training exercise with the Jordanian military, their commander on the ground expected to be call on to intervene in the crisis by assisting the tens of thousands of refugees who had flooded across the border into Jordan.

Col. Matthew St. Clair, the commander of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, acknowledged that point during an appearance Thursday at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank in Arlington, Va. The colonel admitted it was a surprise his Marines were not called on to assist the refugees -- just one more sign of how close the United States was earlier this year to intervening in the Syrian civil war.

"I thought that exercise would turn into something else, but it did not," St. Clair said. "The exercise stayed focused on the exercise's objectives, and continuing to expand and build our partnership with the Jordanian armed forces."

The training exercise, known as Eager Lion, occurred from June 9 to 20 in Jordan, as the war in Syria continued to push thousands of refugees out of the country and into Jordan, Lebanon and other nearby nations. More than 100,000 of them settled in Jordan, a key U.S. ally in the region. St. Clair's unit deployed in March deployed in March along with the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group, and were well aware of the carnage before they left.

"During our pre-deployment training, we looked very closely at the refugee and humanitarian crisis that was occurring in Jordan based off the conditions in Syria," St. Clair said. "We put a lot of time and effort into how we would do a humanitarian assistance-type operation."

The colonel did not say why they didn't get involved. Eager Lion incorporated some 8,000 troops from about 19 countries, including the U.S. Marines and sailors. At the time, the U.S. military tamped down on the possibility of U.S. forces getting involved in any operation involving Syrian refugees, while acknowledging they had unloaded a large portion of the unit's equipment to conduct bilateral training with the Jordanians.

"Our participation is not related to anything in Syria, as we've been planning our participation since the last [training exercise] ended with the 24th MEU," Capt. Lucas Burke, a Marine Corps spokesman for the unit, said at the time.

The U.S. forces returned to their ships late in June, and were quickly pulled into a variety of other missions, including embassy reinforcement operations in Egypt and Yemen, St. Clair said. Still, questions about Syria continued to loom large for the unit as U.S. officials in Washington openly discussed the possibility of strikes on military targets in Syria in August, after evidence emerged that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons on civilians.

The widely held assumption was that if President Obama approved an attack, it would be limited to cruise missiles fired from Navy ships or air strikes. Still, if air operations were approved, it raised the possibility that St. Clair's Marines would be needed to rescue a downed pilot or his aircraft. The skill, known as the tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel, or TRAP, was used in 2011 to collect an Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle pilot who ejected over Libya before his jet crashed. St. Clair said he could have flown CH-53 helicopters off the amphibious ship San Antonio or MV-22 Ospreys off the larger Kearsarge to do the mission if needed.

"We looked at that, as well other regional reactions to those strikes, if the strikes were to occur," St. Clair said. "Would that require embassy reinforcement for different countries throughout the region? We weren't just focused on Syria, but other countries and the regional reaction."

That became unnecessary, of course, when Obama backpedaled about the need for strikes in Syria in September. The Marines and sailors returned to the United States in November.

Defense Department photo

National Security

Unmasked: Area 51's Biggest, Stealthiest Spy Drone Yet

The drone that spied on bin Laden and on Iran's nukes was just the start. Meet its bigger, higher-flying, stealthier cousin, the Northrop Grumman RQ-180. It's probably been flying for a few years now, but you weren't supposed to know that; the existence of this secret project, based out of Area 51, was revealed Friday by Aviation Week.

The existence of the RQ-180 has been long rumored. Cryptic public statements by U.S. Air Force officials indicated a secret high-altitude reconnaissance drone, and Northrop officials frequently reference the broad strokes of the program. For that matter, it is likely not the only classified unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV. Other companies, including Lockheed and Boeing, also have a stable of smaller secretaircraft.

The RQ-180 is likely flying from the secret Air Force test facility at Groom Lake, Nevada, widely known as Area 51. Its exact specifications, including such crucial details as the number of engines, is unknown, but Aviation Week suggests a wingspan of over 130 feet, based on hangar construction at Northrop's Palmdale, California facility. The number of aircraft built is also unknown; however, a flight test program, relatively quick entry into service and open budget documents suggest a small fleet are flying routinely.

One such aircraft is Lockheed's RQ-170, first shown to the world in grainy pictures from Kandahar air base, Afghanistan, but only officially acknowledged after one crashed almost-intact in Iran. The RQ-170 was (and maybe still is) tasked by the CIA to spy on Iran's contentious nuclear program. The drone was reportedly used to spy on Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan before and during the raid that killed him. RQ-170 has also been reported in South Korea, possibly to look at North Korea's nuclear program. RQ-170 was impressive, but limited: it showed only some stealth characteristics, and was widely believed to be slightly outdated by the time it was discovered. The larger and stealthier RQ-180 would be able to fly higher, longer, allowing the CIA to watch the same targets for days at a time, and -- just maybe -- spy on more sophisticated countries.

The RQ-180 is based off the X-47B, a much smaller experimental aircraft that became the first drone to takeoff and land from an aircraft carrier. Where the smaller X-47B lacks range and stealth, RQ-180 evidently delivers. Though RQ-180 is far too large for an aircraft carrier, it may have the same air-to-air refueling capabilities as the X-47B, allowing it to stay in the air virtually indefinitely. It may also have attack capabilities: X-47B has bomb bays, which have thus far gone unused, and indeed Aviation Week suggests it is used for electronic attack and carries sophisticated sensors.

The aircraft's performance is said to be similar to Northrop's white-world entry, the RQ-4 Global Hawk, which can fly for days and cover thousands of miles. Hopefully the RQ-180 performs better; Global Hawk has received mixed marks on its evaluations, and the aircraft it was meant to replace, the venerable Lockheed U-2, will continue to fly for decades to come.

White-world reconnaissance capabilities, such as the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper and a plethora of modified Beechcraft King Airs, are incapable of stealth and can easily be tracked on radar. Though few doubt stealthier capabilities, the Air Force has been closemouthed on its stealthy intelligence aircraft.

The Nevada desert has a long history of supporting whole squadrons of classified aircraft, including the famed Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the F-117 stealth fighter and the RQ-170. Often upon becoming public the aircraft are transferred to other facilities, usually the slightly-less-classified Tonopah Test Range airport. The wheels of declassification turn slowly, so as with RQ-170, details of the RQ-180 will likely remain opaque for years to come.

Aviation Week